I had a book lined up for Bulgaria. I was going to read Elias Canetti‘s The Tongue Set Free. It was in my bag and everything.
Then I discovered a copy of Georgi Gospodinov ‘s Natural Novel in the excellent indie bookstore McNally Jackson in New York City (where I’m staying for a week or so, hence the different bookshelf) and it sounded so intriguing that I had to buy it and read it there and then.
Normally at this point in a post, I’d give a brief rundown of what the book’s about. I’m stuck here, I’m afraid because, as the narrator, one Georgi Gospodinov, writes in the fictional ‘Editor’s note’ that pops up after chapter 2, ‘the novel itself could hardly be summarized’.
The throughline, such as it is, is the mental disintegration of the protagonist, another Georgi Gospodinov, after a divorce. But to say that seems to reduce the narrative and squash it back on to the page when it is a living, breathing, alarming entity that leaps around the room, in and out of your brain, helping itself to your insecurities.
As his psyche splinters, the writer/narrator gives himself over to experimentation, trying everything from a novel based solely on the beginnings of classic works and a novel written only in verbs to the Bible according to flies (‘The Book of Flies’) and a disquisition on the artistic significance of toilets.
As in several other books I’ve read so far, the ubiquity of Western culture is evident with The Kinks, Reservoir Dogs, Elvis Presley, Daniel Defoe, J.D Salinger and Shakespeare all featuring (along with many others). But here, instead of a sinister, controlling force, it seems rather to be an amusette or smogasbord for Gospodinov to pick at, pull apart and reconfigure as he pleases, often to startling effect.
Essentially, this book is about itself. Fly-like it lights on and digests its own events, regurgitating them in altered form for reconsideration. However, unlike much postmodern literature, it doesn’t take itself wholly seriously. Anarchic and subversive, the narrative bristles with jokes. It pokes fun at me, at you, at them and most of all at itself, while opening a door on to a fresh landscape of linguistic possibilities and ushering us all through.
Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov (translated from the Bulgarian by Zornitsa Hristova). Publisher (this edition): Dalkey Archive Press (2005)